Well, it is that time of year again. Time to think of gifts for the people in your life. Time to cook amazing meals to share with family and friends. And, we truly hope, time to curl up with a few good books yourself. (OK maybe that last part only happens after the relatives have left.)
To help you find the perfect gift for everyone on your list, we have assembled some of our favorites from our 2014 reading. Not all were published this year, which means many are available in a less expensive paperback form. And, once again to help you envision the perfect recipient for each book, we have assembled our selections in somewhat artificial categories (e.g., fiction for men who have enough tech, but not enough good fiction). Please use them as a guide, not as strict rules about who can and should read any of these picks.
For your convenience, each of our picks is linked to the Norwich Bookstore’s web site (or Waterstones’ site for a few not yet available in the USA). Thus, you do not have to leave your computer to check these items off your list (Happy Cyber Monday). Finally, we truly hope our selections help take a bit of stress out of the shopping aspect of this whirlwind season. HAPPY HOLIDAYS!
COOKBOOKS: FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO COOK UP A CULINARY SNOW STORM
How to Cook Everything Fast by Mark Bittman (2014) – The theme for our lives this year in the kitchen keep is simple, keep it fast. This cookbook fits the bill. Most of the recipes take half an hour to prepare – nothing more than a cool forty-five minutes. This food Bittman showcases reads like a “best of” menu from your favorite pub. And ,it’s just what you want to eat after a long day at working or shuttling kids. It’s comfort food with a modern twist. There’s the Kale Caesar with Roasted Asparagus, 30 Minute Chicken Tagine, the Chicken, Bacon, Avocado, and Tomato Wrap, Provencal Tomato Soup with Fennel, even quick Skillet Fruit Crisp. Treat yourself or a friend to this new culinary treasury.
Make It Ahead by Ina Garten (2014) – Ina Garten’s recipes are always sure to please, and this book is no exception. Leafing through its pages, looking at the gorgeous photos makes the reader feel like they are visiting their favorite caterer’s take away shop. These are recipes that you can make for your next dinner gathering or deliver to a friend who needs a meal. We love the updated Roast Chicken with Bread and Arugula Salad (a short cut on the Zuni Cookbook classic), Carrot and Cauliflower Puree, and Winter Slaw (with kale, Brussels sprouts, and radicchio). Each recipe gives tips to the home cook for steps to perform ahead of time and assemble at the last minute. No kitchen library is complete without a few of Ina Garten’s classic cookbooks.
Plenty More by Yotam Ottolenghi (2014) – Well, he has done it again. Mr. Ottolenghi has produced a book that makes you want to start cooking now, preferably beginning with his first recipe and proceeding all the way through to the end. And of course, you will be tasting delicious dish after dish along the way. (And honestly, we like that this is less of a travel log than Mr. Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem, and instead is a “fun to look at / fun to try” collection of recipes.) Note this is a perfect reference book for those of you feeding vegetarians over the holidays.
Prune by Gabrielle Hamilton (2014) – You’ve got to admire not only Gabrielle Hamilton’s uber food-sense and culinary artistry but also her razor-sharp edginess. Prune, the cookbook, is the product of her years as a restauranteur in Brooklyn and her bistro with the same name. Her literary voice shines through in each recipe (if you haven’t already, do read Hamilton’s brilliant food memoir Blood Bones and Butter, 2011). She writes with the intent to teach the home cook, but her recipes emerge from the perspective of a restaurant chef (quantities are in orders, not servings, descriptions of how much to order for a weekend crowd are included, faux splatters and finger prints on the pages make the reader feel as though they are looking are her private notes). But Hamilton is definitely not going for the Miss Congeniality award. She lectures, scolds, treats the reader like a “stagiere” in her restaurant. We are inclined to run – not walk – to forage for the ingredients for her Cod in Saffron Broth with Leeks, Potatoes and Savoy Cabbage.
NON-FICTION/REFERENCE/POETRY: FOR PEOPLE WHO LIKE TO THINK & CHAT WHILE SITTING BY THE WOOD STOVE
How to be an explorer of the world by Keri Smith (2008) – We somehow missed this when it was first published, but are loving it now. In this journal, readers are encouraged to explore and document the world around them. Readers are told to take notes, to collect things they find on their travels, to notice patterns and to focus on one thing at a time in a series of illustrated prompts. This would make a great “What do we do now? We’re bored” solution generator.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown (2013) – We know we have reviewed this before. But now, this tale of how nine men from the University of Washington showed the world what true grit really means during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, is available in paperback and would make a great gift for anyone presenting gift difficulties this holiday season.
MEMOIRS, MOSTLY ABOUT TRAVEL: TALES FOR PEOPLE WHO CAN’T GET AWAY TO FAR-OFF LANDS AS OFTEN AS THEY WISH
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Heminway (1964) – We are so glad we finally got around to reading (Lisa Christie) or re-reading (Lisa Cadow) this memoir. His Paris is a place we would have loved to have visited, and the characters involved are all the more amazing as they are historical figures you know from many other contexts (e.g., Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Brazilian Adventure by Peter Fleming (1933) – This travel log is superb,and honestly took us by surprise with how much we loved it. The story begins when the narrator, a London literary editor, signs on for an expedition to find Colonel PH Fawcett, who has gone missing in the Amazon. With self-depreciating humor, Mr. Fleming proceeds to explore how an expedition comes together, embarks and continues in the face of hardships of 3,000 miles of wilderness. Have fun with this one. We honestly can not recommend it highly enough.
ADULT FICTION: FOR A WOMAN WHO ONLY HAS TIME FOR THE BEST FICTION
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (2014) – Buckle up your backpacks and get ready for playground politics and the modern parenting. The lives of three mothers converge on the first day of kindergarten at an upscale elementary school in coastal Australia. Observant, humorous, a tad bit dark, this “un-putdownable” book (by the author of What Alice Forgot 2012) explores the lies that we all tell ourselves and each other. Part mystery (someone ends up dead, but who?), part social commentary, part page-turner, this book is sure not to disappoint.
Burial Rites by Hannah Kent (2013 in Australia/2014 in USA) – We discovered this haunting tale of Iceland in Rhode Island at Island Books, and we are very glad we did. Ms. Kent does a superb job of taking the true stories of 1) Agnes, a woman convicted of murdering two men, of 2) the family who must house Agnes while she awaits her execution, of 3) Toti, the Reverend who must save Agnes’s soul, and combining them into a fabulous first novel.
While Beauty Slept by Elizabeth Blackwell (2014) – It is almost as if Gail Carson Levine created one of her fairy tale retellings for grown-ups. In this novel, Ms. Blackwell tells the “true story” of Sleeping Beauty, with explanations of why she was lying in the tower when the Prince came, who exactly were Millicent and Flora, and why the king and queen feared spinning wheels. It is truly a page-turning tale of family, secrets, and promises. Read it and enjoy losing yourself in an unique telling of a well-known tale.
ADULT FICTION: FOR A MAN WHO HAS ENOUGH TECH, BUT NOT ENOUGH GOOD FICTION
The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen (Dec 2013)- The latest Department Q novel shows how the misfit threesome stuck in the bowels of the Copenhagen Police Department have melded into an effective cold-case solving unit, and a worthy family.
Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst (2014) – This book shows how a thriller becomes a powerful novel; it provides a superb author, a historical plot and intense situations with characters you care about. We especially liked the Spanish Civil War angle in this well-plotted tale. Enjoy this one and then pick up one of Mr. Furst’s many other superb historical thrillers.
ADULT FICTION: FOR ANYONE LOOKING FOR A GREAT BOOK
A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (2013) – A truly, truly, truly amazing debut novel about the pain and suffering inflicted during the Chechen conflict(s) and the power of love. From the opening pages describing the abduction and disappearance of a man from his home (which is promptly burned to the ground). Mr. Marra connects the lives of eight unforgettable characters (e.g., the daughter of the abducted man, the father of a despised informant, a doctor trying to hold together a hospital with only three staff members) in unexpected ways. With incredible writing and gifted storytelling, this is a superb read. We can not praise it enough.
Euphoria by Lily King (2014) – Truly terrific. A well-crafted tale of three anthropologists and their time observing and living with the various peoples in the Territory of New Guinea. Set between the two World Wars, Ms. King explores a complex love triangle among these gifted and often confused young scientists. This novel is loosely based upon real life events from the life of Margaret Mead — all from her trip to the Sepik River in New Guinea, during which Mead and her husband, Reo Fortune, briefly collaborated with the man who would become her third husband, the English anthropologist Gregory Bateson. It has us searching for nonfiction treatments of her life. The New York Times agrees that this book is a “must read”.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (2014) – We love her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, so we leapt at the chance to read some short stories by Ms. Mantel. The collection is diverse and always interesting, from a piece about when you know a marriage has ended to the title story about an assassin, she keeps you guessing about what is really going on with each character. Pick this up and enjoy them one at a time or in one fell swoop.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) – This is a fabulous World War II novel (yes, dear readers, there is room for another title in this genre) that tells the stories of Marie-Laure, a young blind girl from Paris, and Werner, a brilliant German boy with a gift for math, radios and engineering. Their seemingly disparate lives converge in the seaside fortress town on St. Malo, France in 1944. The author does and excellent job of slowly building the suspense and pace throughout the novel turning it into a real page-turner by the time the bombs start dropping in Brittany. Many people are describing this as “the book of the year”, and we just might have to agree.
BOOKS FOR YOUNGSTERS (AGES 8-12): THOSE BEYOND TONKA TRUCKS & TEA PARTIES BUT NOT YET READY FOR TEEN TOPICS
The Misadventures of Family Fletcher by Dana Alison Levy (2014) – Two dads adopt four sons, and chaos and so, so, so much love ensue. Boys we know LOVED this book. And, we must say it was completely entertaining listening for all ages on a car trip to Maine.
Another Day as Emily by Eileen Spinelli (2014) – What do you do when your LITTLE brother gets all the credit for saving your neighbor’s life when you helped too? Or when your best-friend and the boy down the block don’t quite get you? Or when you don’t get a part in the community theater’s play? Why, you become Emily Dickenson of course; but then you discover being a recluse is not as easy as it seems.
Under the Egg by Laura Marx Fitzgerald (2014) – Publishers Weekly says “Fans of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will find this another delightful lesson in art history.” That fan base includes us; so, we were thrilled to read this. The plot follows Theodora Tenpenny around Manhattan as she tries to solve the mystery of a painting she uncovers (literally) once her grandfather dies. Characters include her eccentric mother who has spent at least fifteen years doing nothing else but working on her mathematical dissertation and consuming very expensive tea (and certainly not caring for Theodora). The book shows how two amazing, but lonely girls can make great friends, and it introduces viewers both to the world of beautiful and important art, and to the importance of asking for help when you need it. Not bad for an author’s first children’s book!
The Expeditioners and the Secret of King Triton’s Lair by SS Taylor with superb illustrations by Katherine Roy (2014) – The Wests are back and embroiled in an amazing adventure involving underwater secrets, pirates and lessons about friendship love and family. If you have not yet read the first book, start with The Expeditioners and the Treasure of Drowned Man’s Canyon.
The Wolf Princess by Cathryn Constable (2012) – Great atmosphere surrounds this story of an orphan girl and her two friends as they travel from a London boarding school to Russia and are thrown from a train into the snow, rescued by a princess (or is she?) and brought to a decaying castle surrounded by wolves, legends and tragedy. You sort of see the end coming, but it doesn’t matter as you are so fully immersed in Russia you don’t care.
YOUNG ADULT FICTION — FOR TEENS /TWEENS AND THE ADULTS WHO LOVE THEM
Like No Other by Una LaMarche (2014) – West Side Story with an African American as the male lead and a Hasidic girl as the female lead. Set in modern day Brooklyn, this tale explores the feelings one’s first true love brings, and what it means to make your own way into the world – even if it requires navigating wanting to respect one’s parents while still rebelling from their rules.
How It Went Down by Kekla Magoon (2014) – A powerful look at “what goes down” when a 16-year-old black boy in a hoodie is shot by a white man. Was it defense against a gang incident? Was it a man stopping a robbery gone wrong? Was it being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Was it none of these, or a combination of these? And, just when you think you have all the pieces and perspectives to know what happened, a new piece of information inserted into one of the multiple voices used to tell this story sends you another direction. A seriously impressive book – cleverly staged, with superb and unique voices throughout, and unfortunately a plot from today’s headlines. This book makes you think about how perspective influences what you see, how stories are told, how choices have implications, and – well, to be honest – the pull and power of gangs. Read it and discuss with your favorite teen.
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (2014) – An excellent debut novel about the power of all the things left unsaid in a family. How secrets hurt. How children try so hard to please their parents. How parents’ expectations, even if well-meaning, can crush. How you must live your life, not the life others expect you to live. All of this is intwined in the story of Lydia and her family (three mixed race children and their Chinese father and Caucasian mother living in 1970s Ohio) after she is found dead in a lake. Read it. (Note many people review this as an adult book, but we see it as a YA coming of age novel.)
The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting by Holly Bourne (2014) – WOW, Ms. Bourne grabs you from the opening premise and keeps you turning pages. Yes, you know that disaster awaits, but you are so hoping that somehow it all ends well. Please read this with your favorite High Schooler. We think it might open up some great conversations about mean girls, horrid boys, cutting, suicide, finding great friendships, and the meaning of life.
PICTURE BOOKS: FOR FAMILIES TO READ TOGETHER DURING SNOW STORMS
Once Upon An Alphabet (2014) and The Day the Crayons Quit (2013) by Oliver Jeffers – Author of our favorite picture book from last year – The Day the Crayons Quit – has penned a series of short stories based upon each letter of the alphabet. His droll nature gets kids thinking about letters and life. (Disclaimer: this book could be considered a bit dark for some children in the way Roald Dahl was a bit dark, so please pre-read if you are concerned about gifting this to kids you know.) Please note that we recommend this as a read-aloud with your young kids, as the ratio of prose to pictures is rather high, and as stated above, a bit sophisticated. And, if you missed The Day the Crayons Quit last year, we highly recommend gifting it to someone special this year. Crayons is a much more traditional picture book for children that is funny, funny, funny!
New York in Four Seasons by Michael Storrings (2014) – A picture book for adults and kids that is actually a love story for New York. You might recognize Mr. Storrings’ drawings from Christmas ornaments. In this book, his pictures powerfully illustrate a city he LOVES, and his prose tells you why you should love it too. Great illustrations include Central Park, Coney Island, and some more seasonal items – Christmas windows, 4th of July fireworks and the Greenwich Village Halloween parade. We envision this as the perfect gift from New Yorkers, former New Yorkers or New Yorker wanna-bes to give to anyone they want to love NYC too.
Atlas of Adventures: A collection of natural wonders, exciting experiences and fun fun festivities from the four corners of the globe by Lucy Letherland (2014) – We would describe this as similar to MAPS, which we reviewed last year and still recommend to anyone who has missed it. Ms. Letherland’s book encourages the reader through fun illustrations and some well selected prose, to travel the world to have adventures specific to unique locations. A GREAT holiday gift, but one that is not available in the USA until 2015 (so put it on your lists for 2015 US fans), but available in Europe now for Book Jam readers overseas.